Video game Unravel explores the ties that bind and the connections that got lost along the way
The platform/puzzle game has deep aspirations and motivations, as its star Yarny, a little figure made of red string, works to bridge the gaps that can grow between families and friends
Meet Yarny. Yarny doesn’t look like much at a quick glance. Yarny is red, about the size of your index finger, with an alien, triangular face and nimble body made up of a single piece of, well, yarn.
Yarny is quite fragile. Keep Yarny out of water, and don’t let Yarny near a critter. A crab’s claw will wreak havoc on Yarny.
Yarny is also full of personality, the standout star of a new video game called Unravel. Those old family photographs collecting dust on a bookshelf? Yarny wants to explore them, transport inside them and make old connections feel new again. Among Yarny’s likes is nostalgia. Dislikes? Families that drift apart.
Unravel, developed by a small team at Coldwood Interactive in the northern Sweden town of Umeå and published by video game giant Electronic Arts, is about memories, the small moments that have been forgotten but shouldn’t be.
Say, the tire swing in the backyard. Or the knick-knacks that populate the garage near a seaside family getaway. Or the way an old rickety wooden lawn chair would suddenly collapse without warning. Yarny gets up close and personal with such objects, swinging or lassoing his yarn around rocks, gardens, old soda cans and apple trees like a grand adventurer. Yarny tiptoes around rust, brings to life an old boat and bounds around berries.
His mission, though, is not to find some artefact or uncover a vast conspiracy. Yarny simply wants the player to pause and reflect, to think not necessarily of better times but of good times that shouldn’t be lost. It’s a little melancholic.
Yarny’s creator, Coldwood creative director Martin Sahlin, cites the lyrics of Bjork at her most meditative or the Swedish countryside at its most picturesque as inspirations. Yet Yarny was really born out of fear. Sahlin looked at peers, at acquaintances, at strangers and saw them drifting apart. It was bumming him out.
“When you look at people who are friends and family, and you see people not really dealing with the relationships too well,” Sahlin explains, “one very real and tangible fear that I have as a parent is, what if my kids grow up and we no longer get along? What if they grow up and no longer love you?”
That was the starting point for Sahlin. “It’s about trying to reconnect,” he says, “about putting in the effort to reach people who you might have got separated from and re-establish those bonds. That’s my commitment as a parent. If we ever got separated somehow, I wouldn’t let it stay like that.”
The look of Unravel is close to photorealistic. Chairs and flowerpots tower over Yarny as if they’re skyscrapers. Images in the game all look a little scarred by the sun, as if these are pictures from a family album that sat beneath a window for years.
And it’s challenging.
This is a run-and-jump game with puzzles scattered throughout, and rummaging through the past requires the use of Yarny’s string. But lasso or tie too much and Yarny will be reduced to a shivering string figure of a character.
Sometimes puddles must be plugged; other times the docks of a waterfront must be carefully glided over as Yarny sways precariously above cresting waves. Sometimes Yarny’s string will be used to commandeer old machinery, and other times Yarny will have to guide a kite through branches.
Unravel begins in the cosy home of an elderly woman. It’s clearly lived in, as drawers overflow with old frames, wires and books. It’s a “pretty lonely house,” Sahlin says, and at the start we see this elderly woman longingly looking at old photographs. She drops a red ball of yarn, and, magically, Yarny comes into existence.
The colour is no accident: Unravel is a video game with deep aspirations and motivations. Sahlin chose red because of its importance to Greek mythology (the tales of Ariadne’s thread) and the red string of fate of Asian folklore.
Ultimately it’s an idea, says Sahlin, that “people who are meant to be together are connected via a red thread”, and it lends Unravel a sort of mythic, timeless quality, as if we’re playing a long-lost fairy tale about estranged family members who rediscover the power of their connection.
“It definitely has a bit of a sad undertone,” Sahlin says of the game. “That’s the whole idea. But the character (you, essentially) is kind of a positive force that is trying to deal with all that sadness and turn it into something good. The idea is to make the character feel they’re on an important mission and are improving things.”
Unravel is part of a relatively recent move to more authorial video games. Sahlin, for instance, notes that he came up with the characters and the story before he decided how it would all play out.
Though it owes a debt to the some classic Nintendo games – the bouncy feel of the Super Mario Bros. series or the shape-shifting ideas of the Kirby franchise – Unravel feels less about end objectives and more about soul-searching. The game is full of constant reminders that we’re traversing the memories of an elderly woman, from photographs to ghostly visions, offering only visual clues to the underlying story.
Unravel represents a drastic shift in philosophy for Coldwood. Previously, the studio survived by building sports games – skiing, boxing or fitness titles, the bulk of them forgettable. Sahlin alludes to the studio’s poorly received PlayStation 3 game The Fight: Lights Out as forever changing the way he thought about game design. Though it is, in his words, “pretty flawed”, he says it still sold 600,000 copies worldwide. He felt ashamed.
“We had an audience that big, and we didn’t have anything interesting to tell them or anything that was worth remembering or treasuring,” he says. “We didn’t enrich them in any kind of way. We took a couple of hours of their life. I just felt bad about doing that, so I figured whatever I made next, even though it didn’t have to be world-changing, it still has to be something that’s rewarding, enriching and thought-provoking.”
It had to be Yarny.
Los Angeles Times